Photo Credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90
Gazans receive bags of flour at an UNRWA distribution center. From its inception, the agency was designed to prolong rather than solve the 1948 refugee problem.

Over the years, many in Israel have pointed out that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is a Palestinian agency with a few Swedes on top. This became clearer than ever before after the October 7 Massacre. Some of the hostages who returned from captivity in Gaza said that they were confined in the homes of UNRWA employees. Evidence has been accumulated in Israel that UNRWA transfers a portion of its budget directly to Hamas, including the multi-billion-dollar tunnel construction project. Also, dozens of teachers who work for UNRWA have openly expressed their support for the massacre of Jews.


News12 reported Thursday night that Israel’s Foreign Ministry has compiled a classified report to be submitted to the Netanyahu Cabinet, with recommendations on how to deal with the problematic activities of the UN agency in the Gaza Strip.

The report proposes that in the short term, the ministry will prepare a dossier on UNRWA’s problematic conduct in cooperating with Hamas; in the longer term, Israel will reduce UNRWA’s field of activity and instead empower more reliable service providers in education, health, and food; and the final goal is the complete transfer of UNRWA’s powers to the entity or entities that will control the Gaza Strip after the end of the war.

Chairman of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Policy and Information, MK Ze’ev Elkin (National Union), on Wednesday, told Israel Hayom: “The UNRWA organization not only artificially perpetuates the problem of Palestinian refugees – with a different policy than the UN operates toward refugees in all the other regions of the world – but also, as we learn again and again, serves as a cover for the activities of terrorist organizations such as Hamas. The State of Israel needs to establish a clear position regarding the continuation of UNRWA’s activities and act within the current crisis to implement this policy.”


The UNRWA definition is exclusively intended to determine eligibility for UNRWA assistance. Nevertheless, some contend that it contributes to the perpetuation of the conflict.

Despite UNRWA’s mandate being limited to relief efforts, an op-ed by Asaf Romirowsky and Alexander H. Joffe in the Wall Street Journal Europe edition in April 2011 argued that the organization has not played a substantial role in creating Palestinian institutions that foster a truly civil society. The authors suggested that the ideal scenario would involve disbanding UNRWA, allowing “Palestinians” the freedom and responsibility to build their own society.

The High Commission is tasked with facilitating the swift integration of refugees into normal life and actively works to settle them quickly, often in countries other than their country of origin. In contrast, UNRWA policy stipulates that Palestinian Arabs who fled from Israel during the 1948 war, along with all their descendants, are to be considered refugees until a just and durable solution is achieved through political means. UNRWA was intentionally designed not to dictate the specific outcome of any agreement.

In a 2009 report, James G. Lindsay, a former UNRWA general counsel and researcher for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, criticized UNRWA practices. Lindsay argued that UNRWA’s failure to match the success of the UNHCR in resettling refugees appears to be a political decision favoring a Palestinian political perspective that advocates for a “return” to the land now occupied by Israel. However, it’s emphasized that UNRWA has not been granted a mandate by the UN General Assembly to resettle refugees. John Ging, head of UNRWA Gaza, responded to Lindsay’s criticisms by expressing disappointment and asserting that UNRWA’s mandate is not set by the organization itself, but rather by the governing authorities, making it a political failure beyond its control.


Ging was not wrong. The cultivation of UNRWA as an agency intended to preserve rather than resolve the refugee problem was a project of the Arab UN members in the early 1950s, who leveraged the West’s need to prevent the Soviet Union from entering the Middle East to shape UNRWA as a means to keep the refugees at a state of readiness to return to their homes in Israel.

Two moves led to the establishment of UNRWA as an independent agency, separate from the UN Refugee Agency: The 1948 Clapp report and the position of the Arab countries.

The recommendation of the delegation led by Gordon Clapp in 1950 viewed the treatment of refugees as the gateway to Western, and especially American, political and economic influence in the Near East toward peace and economic stability. Clapp argued that regional economic development is a necessary condition for the long-term rehabilitation of refugees.

The Arab countries realized that they were expected to take in the refugees and therefore worked to amend Clapp’s interim report on four issues:

  1. Emphasize the issue of the return of the refugees to their homes
  2. Change the name of the proposed UN agency to include the word “Palestine”
  3. The new agency will consult with the countries of the region
  4. The new agency’s budget will be flexible

According to Einat Wilf, co-author of “The War of the Right of Return,” UNRWA was supposed to be a temporary agency that would operate for 3-4 years, and then close, similar to another temporary agency that was established at the same time to resettle the Korean refugees from World War II. But unlike the Korean case, the Arab countries wanted to prevent the solution of the “Palestinian refugee problem.”



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